Lateef, Nothing but the Truthspeaker!
Imagine that when your mum was young she was roommates with Angela Davis, that you traveled to Cuba with an official US delegation age 13 or that at school you were in the same class as Opio from Hieroglyphics... How would that shape your world?
Let's find out with Lateef...
Can you tell me about your childhood and how it was for you to grow up in Oakland?
My father's Puerto Rican but his lineage comes from Algeria. Algeria [was] a French colony and I'm named after the sailor that went from Algeria to Puerto Rico: Lateef Daumont. So he had a Muslim first name and a French last name.
I was born September 28, 1974 at Alta Bates Hospital, at the time it was the hospital that had the least amount of [infant] mortality and my whole life I've lived in Oakland. Growing up here, for me it was all I knew so I didn't think it was different and that was pretty rough. There's a lot of different opinions here, there's a lot of poverty and a lot of really rich people too.
When I was younger, I really thought that I knew it all and I was going to tell you about it. That's the confidence of youth, but now I'm not so self-assured and I've become a little bit more tolerant of other people. I feel like in my 30s, I broke myself into being able to say "I don't know," and so I try to do more of that. I've realized that the values of the Bay Area, the values of my family and the values of this community they're not like other places.
Your parents were affiliated to the Black Panthers movement. Did you develop a sense of justice through them?
Yeah, so much! My mother was roommates with Angela Davis in college, I see her from time to time and a lot of my uncles are Panther guys or did security for them.
That informs the kind of justice and in-touch-with-the-struggle kind of sense of what I do and put out. I always thought it was normal and the people just needed to find out then they'd be on that side too. [But] it’s not like that everywhere! [he laughs]
When I first started rapping, I really thought a lot of myself and you weren't gonna tell me nothing unless you wanted to fight! I still feel like folks that aren't familiar with the dynamics of what's going on need to be fully informed, right? It can be really difficult to try and tell somebody something but there are ways they can happen and music is one of them. People can hear ideas in music and have a discussion about them.
I remember I had a group called C.A.S.A.A. when I was about 10 or 12 years old, Children Against South African Apartheid. We had a press conference, we were mobilizing against apartheid at the time and it was an all-kids-group. We were helped by our parents but we were just deciding what we wanted to do. And they're like, "What you want to do, I'll let you do it." We were like, "We don't want the world to be like this!"
When I was 13 I went to Cuba with a delegation from the United States and there were other delegations of kids from all over the world. I remember having a meeting with one of them and the kid lost an arm in a war initiated by our country and we [felt that we had to] apologize to him on behalf of our country. From an early age, I was kind of experienced in some of the results from imperialism, colonialism and atrocities being committed by my own country. I felt like somebody needed to address that and I am somebody that can, so I'll do it.
I've always been kind of engaged and honestly a little falsely confident. I thought we were gonna change the world and with my parents we come from a revolutionary organizing family, so I think those things help form where I come from and why I'm like I am.
Lateef the Truthspeaker formerly known as Lateef the Dread Piper, that's also the name of your publishing company so can you tell me where those monikers are coming from?
That's right, most people don't know that. The Dread Piper came from ancient Native American mythology and then Truthspeaker came from ancient Egyptian mythology.
So the Dread Piper, there's a character in Native American culture called Kokopelli and at the time I identified with it [usually depicted as a humpbacked flute, Kokopelli is a fertility deity but also a trickster and master braider who represents the spirit of music].
And then later I got into ancient Egyptian history, philosophy and religion, how their whole pantheon worked and what it represented. Truthspeaker was the name given to Osiris when he was crowned king. So I was like, "Oh yeah, Lateef the Truthspeaker," and then it just stuck.
Which artists inspired the way you rap or write?
When I was younger I had a rap that was in other people's style. I had a LL [Cool J] rap, EPMD, Too Short, Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls Of Mischief, Casual and all those guys. Here's a couple of reasons why they were influential:
Number one, obviously they're great artists so that's a good way to be influential. Although the success affected them, I always felt it didn't really change them on a personal level.
Opio [Lindsey, from Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief] was in my third period class and a lot of these cats that you’ve heard of went to the same high school so you're like, "Damn, that's all in two years of school!" And it was similar with Hiero when you consider that we were in the same school and I'm still doing it now years later. Sunspot Jonz was there, Luckyiam was there, The Grouch was there… A bunch of the Living Legends guys were there, all went on to have careers and ultimately all of us [The Solesides Crew] did songs with Hiero.
Then it was seeing them be successful that made us feel like, "Oh, we could do it too" even though we all did it in different ways. Like Living Legends did it like crazy guerilla style independently! Another influence is just that proximity of success.
I really feel like rapping along with everything from forever and I've always picked up lyrics really fast. At the time there were good rappers like Brand Nubian, X-Clan, Chuck D and Public Enemy, but also like Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One, early Ice Cube and the way that he was. And if you listen to their stuff and you rap along with them you're getting a little bit of a lesson, so I think that was a lot of that.
Do you still have some recordings from when you were doing MC battles?
I have existential dread, I hold on to sentimental things but who I am is not defined by the things that I have.
There's something that me and Gab talked about a lot, it's the ego and what you can do to neutralize it. Because the more neutralized the ego is - especially with writing and communicating - the easier it is to connect.
You graduated Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, CA) in 1990.
I went to Bishop O'Dowd for two years and then I transferred to Skyline because I hated Bishop O'Dowd. It was a Catholic school, it was locked all the time, you couldn't cut school, I didn't get along with any of the staff, had a bunch of terrible interactions there... That wasn't the life I was trying to lead [he laughs] and then I was like, "I don't want to go here no more, I'm out!"
What were you studying when you started at UC Davis?
My mother was a doctor and before that though, her dream was that she wanted to be a concert pianist. She was apparently like a fantastic pianist and she still plays. They could have gone to Juilliard [School, performing arts conservatory] but being a Black woman, her parents were like "If you have an opportunity to be a doctor, you're going to be a doctor so be happy about that instead." So she had to kind of give up her dream to do that. And when it came time for me to decide what I was going to do and I went to UC Davis I was also pre-med, I was supposed to be a doctor like my mom.
I was 17 when I first went to school there. I was an undergrad just doing groundwork for medicine and it was one of the first times I really experienced racism in the classroom where people didn't want to study with me. I was like, "What? I'm smarter than you, why don't you want to hang with me?" [he laughs].
At that time I was into learning in a very kind of romantic way, and then I noticed that people were happy for me in a way that was an opportunity for them. I was on the Dean’s list and so I went to the Dean, "I want to get fast tracked into this class," and they're like, "Oh yeah sure, and maybe you can be a TA, and you know, you could work towards having a job here." And I was like, "Um, I don't want to work here!" [he laughs] It was just the first time that I realized that school itself was an industry and students were the punters, like they were the ones that paid for it and these people were making money off of that.
Early 1991, Tom [Lyrics Born] started to call KDVS during Jeff's [DJ Zen] hip hop shows, and he was like, "Oh, I know what tune is playing, and this too...". So at some point Jeff asked Tom to come over. Joseph [Jazzbo] and Xavier [Chief Xcel] were also working there so how did you learn about KDVS in the first place?
Just everybody else had already started like you said in 91 but I didn't get accepted 'til 92 when I met them in freshman year. I was staying in the Malcolm dorms [on UC Davis campus].
So at UC Davis there is a cafeteria, there are also not a lot of [African Americans] students so when you see some of them you're like, "Hey, what's up? How are you doing?" and you connect, especially if they're from the Bay Area. So that's how I met KP the Maniac Psycho aka The Cheezit Terrorist.
Do you mean to say that the Blackalicious track "Cheezit Terrorist" [Melodica EP / Solesides, 1993] is named after him?
It’s dedicated to him, KP the Maniac Psycho was his name back then, tall brilliant dude, he was a chemistry major tutor and also a DJ at KDVS.
So we're upstairs at the cafeteria and I was like, "Yeah man, I rap, what up?" He's like, "Yeah, whatever you rap!" And then I rapped and he was like, "Hey, come with me downstairs, I want to introduce you to Jazzbo," so we go downstairs to KDVS and that was the first time I went there. Jazzbo was there and I was like, "Oh, this is crazy," you know? And then I'm looking through the records and that was cool.
So KP the Maniac Psycho introduced me to KDVS and he introduced me to Jazzbo and told him that I can rap. At the time he had a hat and he used to dress in super baggy clothes. And I finished and he looks up and he goes, "You should meet Gab!" [he laughs]
When I first met Gab, we went into a booth at KDVS and rapped first thing. We got a stack of records and we started freestyling. After maybe the fifth or sixth round he was like, "Okay, you're good!" And I think we rapped until four o'clock in the morning that day, and we got together and we rapped the next day and the next day too, we were just monks about freestyling. And then a short while later Lyrics Born would join us, he brought his own stuff to the table and we just learned from each other. We tried new things, we would listen to the Freestyle Fellowship & the Westcoast Underground and all of them cats. We would just be rapping, rapping and rapping, rapping, rapping!
This happens in a lot of people's lives, they just become monks about it for a couple of years, they just do it! And then they look up and they're like, "Oh, I practiced it for 10,000 hours now, I'm good at this shit!" And that was kind of what was happening with us.
We had the advantage of doing a lot of shows so our stage show was good and we were able to teach each other. There were five of us total, you know what I mean? And even more when you consider Jazzbo and Jeff Chang and the way that they were music fans. They were like, "Hey, you guys are dope and I think you would also be dope if you did this! Listen to what this guy did! Look at this guy's show!" They were also DJs and as part of our business team they would have artistic input. They were great.
Some of them were interning at KDVS and at the same time they were going to school, what about you?
I did one step of that and you kind of had to cut your teeth, so you had to take like a 3am to 5am time slot. I've always really liked the album format since I was a little kid and I would go on the Air and play my favorite records. But that would just be playing the records like I wasn't mixing nothing together. And I remember at some point somebody being like, "Man, I can listen to the record myself. I listen to the radio like a variety of stuff, not personal all the time." So my heart wasn't really in it, I did one season and I wanted to rap! Also the library of KDVS itself, I knew all of these songs and all of a sudden I had access to listening to all the samples and so that really opened up my mind.
Did you ever freestyle on KDVS?
Absolutely, there's a bunch of tapes floating around on me and my freestyles, they were cool. Back then, I was much more trying to disconnect, you know? We've released stuff that are freestyles that I've done, like "Off (With) Their Heads (Be Prompt)" [Latyrx, Latyrx / Solesides, 1997] was a freestyle. I think "Live at KDVS 90.3" is a live freestyle [same record].
I feel like freestyling is very much of an art. There's a way that if you really get into it, it starts to be you talking and you're making points.